[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story continues our series Benelux Family Legacy, which features multigenerational stories from U.S. Army Garrison Benelux and tenant unit partners. This series explores the people who comprise the garrison and delves into the legacy they have created in the Benelux.]
CHIÈVRES AIR BASE, Belgium – Cornelis “Nils” Hobbel, a contracting officer’s representative with the Directorate of Emergency Services at U.S. Army Garrison Benelux, considers himself a link in a chain between his father, who worked for SHAPE, and his son Charles-Henry Hobbel, who is a fire inspector for DES at USAG Benelux.
“I am Dutch, and I am French,” Nils said. “My father was in the Dutch military, and when he came back from war in Indonesia, he took a civilian job when NATO was still in France. He met my mother who was an architect in France, they got married, and I and my sister were born in the SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) hospital in France.”
SHAPE was in Rocquencourt, France from 1953 until France withdrew from NATO's Integrated Military Command structure in 1967. SHAPE found its new home at Casteau near Mons, Belgium.
“I was born in 1966 so basically both my parents came to Belgium and saw the whole of SHAPE (built) from scratch,” said Nils, who still has pictures of when some of the first buildings were built.
For 17 years Nils Has served as the COR managing the Belgian services contract for the garrison. His collective service to the garrison spans over 35 years and began with a singular desire in high school to serve in the U.S. Army.
“My last year of school I moved to the U.S. American High School because I wanted to be a helicopter mechanic in the U.S. Army,” he said. “I needed to have a green card and a U.S. high school diploma, that’s all they said. Both of my parents were working for NATO, dad as a data program controller and my mother as chief commercial accounts.”
Nils explained during this period part of his mother’s work required temporary duty trips to Germany. On one such trip, Nils accompanied his mother to start the inquiry process with the Army recruiting center.
“They said ‘what’s your citizenship?’ and I said ‘I am Dutch,’” said Nils. “But they understood I said ‘Deutsch,’ which meant German, and that was the big confusion.”
Nils explained agreements back then were different between the U.S. and individual European countries concerning military service and opportunities to join the Army. A few months before Nils was due to leave for basic training, a trip to the U.S. Embassy helped to clarify some information. Unfortunately, he learned due to the varying agreements, as a Belgian citizen he was unable to serve in the U.S. Army.
“I came back home disappointed but needing to work,” he said. “I first found a job as a school bus monitor (at SHAPE) in January 1987.”
Disappointed but determined, Nils continued to make the most of his situation and soon applied for an open continuous position as a telephone operator with the 39th Strategic Signal Battalion.
“I was working mostly nightshifts and weekends for several years and from there I moved to the Tier 3 department when we used to have mainframes, and I would actually call in computers that were down,” he said. “I was trained on the job based on aptitude and did weekly reports on UNIX mainframe language.”
Understanding automation and exceling at his job, Nils moved into a position as a resistor capacitor network manager and information technology specialist for 39th SSB at SHAPE Healthcare Facility. He then moved into a role with DES supporting IT functions for the provost marshal’s office.
“So I’ve actually worked with the MPs (military police) since 1999,” he said. “I would travel to Schinnen, (the Netherlands and) Brussels until at one point they consolidated all the IT work, and I was brought in to work with Patrick (Delmotte), Sam (Aubert) doing IT work (for the garrison).”
Enjoying his work but missing the camaraderie he found in the DES shop, Nils took a position downgrade for the opportunity to return to that environment.
“That is when I joined the COR,” Nils said. “I moved to the MP world and for nothing would I move away from this world again: I love them – this is home.”
Nil’s work and his DES work family would be inspiration for his son.
“Since I was six years old I’d come on base with my dad to his work, and most of the time it was to the same building I am working today,” said Charles-Henry Hobbel, fire inspector, director of emergency services for the garrison.
“I remember driving him (Charles-Henry) around the installation in the Humvees with a helmet on, doing perimeter drives or sometimes letting him push the buttons for the emergency lights and sirens, testing out equipment,” Nils said. “He loved it!”
Like his father, Charles-Henry or ‘CH’ as friends and colleagues know him, attended SHAPE International High School. Upon graduation, CH continued to university for a few years but realized his original path was not his ultimate goal.
“Since I was a kid I always wanted to join the Army, so I think I was looking for something that would give me the opportunity to work with Soldiers,” CH said. “I applied to be a security guard but before working with the garrison, I worked for NATO in Brussels to gain experience and get my security clearances. Then after two years I moved to Chièvres Air Base.”
Eight years later CH sought out growth and a new opportunity with the garrison, advancing into the role of fire inspector.
“I’m in here now for eight months and almost nine years total with the garrison,” CH said. “It’s a dream that I work here. Since I was a kid I saw all the military, the uniforms and it was my world, but now I get to work on this base – I can find myself here and this is a dream come true.”
Nils echoes his son’s experience and shares similar gratitude working at the garrison.
“Working for the U.S. government there is this trust,” he said. “First, you prove you can do your job at 100% and now if you want to add stuff and grow, you can go for it. This is awesome, your potential is not limited! If you work hard, you are given a chance to be better at it and to me this is the American dream.”
Recently married, CH wonders if future generations may be joining the family legacy.
“If one day I can put my son or daughter into the SHAPE system, I would do it,” he said. “I think it’s good that you can learn from the diversity of the world.”
“I mean sometimes when I have to do (government purchase card) purchases maybe I’m not that happy, but other than that for over 35 years I have loved every single minute of it,” said Nils. “We are proud to work here.”
This series, Benelux Family Legacy, will continue to explore the many stories and experiences from the people who make up U.S. Army Garrison Benelux and its tenant organizations. Further stories like this on the legacy created through the garrison’s multigenerational workforce will continue to be published every Wednesday for a few more weeks.